Last week, we spent some time considering what the life of Christ looks like in us, and how it begins with and grows out of his gifts to us—his word, his love, and his peace—which, as we allow them to fill us, change us, and change our motivations, so that we come less and less to desire those things which God does not love, and more and more to want to please him with our lives. We noted the fact that this is supposed to produce a change in our behavior, and you may remember that the things Paul emphasizes, the virtues we’re supposed to put on, all have to do with how we treat other people and how we relate to them. They’re all about living lives of love for the people around us.
Which we have no problem with, in theory; but Paul won’t let us leave it in theory—he applies it immediately to specific circumstances, to particular relationships. It isn’t just good enough to love “people” in general and show them compassion and grace—we need to live this way in the most intimate part of life, and so that’s where Paul goes in our passage this morning. He begins, logically, with the marriage relationship, and here I have to raise a quibble with the NIV. You see, the NIV introduces a comma in verse 18 where it doesn’t actually belong, right after the word “husbands.” This might seem like a really picky thing, but it isn’t. Listen to the emphasis. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” What that says is, it’s fitting in the Lord for you to submit to your husbands, so do that. It’s an absolute statement. Take the comma out, and you get this: “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” Now, “as is fitting in the Lord” doesn’t reinforce the first part of the statement, it modifies it.
In that culture, wives were subject to their husbands, at least legally—that’s the reality—and that wasn’t going to change in any great hurry. Paul, then, isn’t saying this in a vacuum, or trying to begin some new practice; rather, he’s addressing an existing reality in the light of the things he’s just been saying about how God calls us to live together. As a practical matter, in a world in which wives weren’t much more than property, what does it mean to live in a Christlike manner in marriage?
For the key to understanding this, turn to Ephesians 5, which was written about the same time. This is one of those passages where translation is a real problem. You see, first, that “submit” there in verse 21 isn’t a separate verb—it’s dependent on the command in verse 18 to “be filled up by the Spirit.” Paul says, be filled with the Spirit instead of wine, and then starts listing what goes along with that: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and praising God, giving thanks to God the Father for everything, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
And second, the sentence doesn’t stop there. There’s no verb in verse 22—it just continues, “submitting to one another in reverence for Christ, wives to husbands as to the Lord.” Now, the grammar lesson might seem to be a bit much, but it’s really very important. You see, what the world has in mind when it thinks of “submit” or “be subject” is one person bossing another around—I tell you what to do and you do it, and that’s that. It’s a one-way street. What Paul means is something very different: all of us as brothers and sisters in Christ are supposed to submit to one another as part of being filled up by the Spirit; we’re called to mutual submission in Christ.
Now, if we are, all of us, to submit to each other, rather than just some people submitting to other people, then clearly submission doesn’t mean just doing what you’re told—that would be hard to sort out. So what does it mean? Well, flip over a bit to Philippians 2, where Paul writes, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” As the ultimate example of this attitude, Paul points to Christ, who had more right than anyone to insist on his own way and his own prerogatives, but chose instead to give them all up and accept crucifixion. It seems to me that the command to submit to each other doesn’t mean that we have to do whatever anyone tells us to do, but rather that we don’t have the right to dominate others; we can’t insist that we are more important than they are. Instead, we should be willing to let others be more important, we should be ready to let others have their way, and we should be as concerned for the good of those around us as for our own good.
It’s in that context that Paul turns to address wives and husbands. Many argue that this is a special case, that mutual submission is only the rule outside of marriage, and that inside marriage submission is a one-way street. The reason I’ve usually seen offered for this is that Paul doesn’t go on in either of these passages to tell husbands to submit to their wives, and that therefore this must be a special duty for wives, not husbands. On first read, that makes sense; but if that’s the correct reading of these passages, then what do we make of the fact that Paul tells husbands to love their wives, but never tells wives to love their husbands? Clearly, he doesn’t mean that wives don’t need to love their husbands. This suggests—especially in light of the command in Ephesians to mutual submission—that he doesn’t intend submission to be just one-way, either; after all, one element of loving another person is being willing to put them and their will and their good ahead of ourselves and our own. Rather, it seems likely that Paul emphasizes submission to wives and love to husbands for some other reason.
The reason, I think, is the cultural situation he’s dealing with, which enshrined the legal superiority of husbands over wives. Husbands had, at least in theory, absolute power over their wives—and, for that matter, their children; and we all know what absolute power does: it corrupts. It corrupts those who wield it; it also corrupts those who are under it. Paul’s driving concern, then, is to address both halves of this relationship and tell both husbands and wives how to deal with the situation as Christians. The key principle here is that this should be all about Christ, and doing what pleases him (which includes not submitting to things which clearly do not please him); along with this, we see the truth that greater authority doesn’t mean a greater opportunity to get your own way, but rather a greater opportunity to love and serve. “Husbands,” Paul says in Ephesians, “love your wives as Christ loved the church.” How did Christ love the church? He laid down his life for the church. That, and nothing less, is the standard.
From the marriage relationship, Paul turns to the relationship between parents and children, and you’ll notice that here he moves from the word “submit” to the word “obey,” clearly indicating the shift to a truly one-way responsibility and a fixed hierarchy. Mutual submission doesn’t mean we all have to do whatever anyone tells us to do, but yes, when parents give orders, children are responsible to obey them. I want to point out here, though, that all through this passage, as he addresses different groups of people, Paul directs his comments to them—for instance, his comments about wives are addressed to wives, and his comments about husbands are addressed to husbands. This might seem obvious, but we often tend to read them the other way around—as if Paul had written, for instance, “Husbands, your wives are supposed to submit to you as to the Lord”; we focus on what others are supposed to do for us, rather than on what Paul commands us to do. Verse 20 isn’t addressed to parents, to use as a stick with which to beat our children, but to the children themselves; yes, we need to teach our children to be obedient, but you know, the reason really isn’t “Because I say so.” It’s not because I say so, it’s because God says so, and because I in my place am trying to do the best I can to teach them to do what is wise and good and pleasing to God.
Which means that the real burden here (as earlier) is in the second command, not the first; and given that the legal power and authority was vested in fathers, the command is to them: “Don’t provoke your children, lest they be disheartened.” If the command to children is “Obey your parents in everything,” then the command to parents—and particularly fathers, whose legal authority over their children was literally unlimited and unrestrained—is, first of all, “Don’t presume on this.” Some would look at the command to children and take it as license to give any order they pleased, but Paul will have none of that; instead, he says, you must take it as a responsibility, to be sure that the orders you give are fair and appropriate, for what is best for your children, and in line with the law of Christ, which is the law of love. Your concern must be, not that you get what you want, but that you give them what they need, so that they will not lose heart—or faith.
Finally, we have directions given to slaves and masters—most of them to slaves, presumably because there were many more slaves than masters in the Colossian church. If you were here when we started this series by looking at Philemon, you may remember that slavery in the ancient world was a very different thing from slavery in the American experience, because though slaves were property, everyone acknowledged that they were still fully human, and needed to be treated as such. You may also remember the way in which Paul undermines the class distinction of slavery in that letter by teaching Philemon, and through him the rest of the church, that he needs to view Onesimus no longer as his inferior but as his brother and equal in Christ.
Here we see Paul making the same point to those in the church who are slaves: what really matters is not that they belong to another human being, but that they belong to Christ, and it’s really him they’re serving. Their call just happens to be to serve Christ by obeying their masters, remembering that anyone who does wrong will receive the punishment they deserve—whether a slave or a slaveowner; neither would be able to use their status as justification or excuse, because there is no partiality with God. Just to drive this home to slaveowners, Paul reminds them as he reminded Philemon that this is what really matters for them, too: they belong to Christ and are called to serve him, and thus in truth, they and their slaves share a common master who will judge them both together on that common ground.
It’s in 3:17 that we see most clearly the governing principle in our passage this morning, in the command to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”; in verses 18 and following, we have the specific application of that principle to whatever forms of service or obedience we might find ourselves required to give. Wives were expected to be subject to their husbands—so do so as is fitting in the Lord, as part of the mutual submission which all of us as Christians are to render to each other; husbands, you remember that part, too, and love your wives with the love of Christ. Children must obey their parents—yes, but do so as your service in the Lord, not simply because human authority requires it; and though this isn’t put in so many words, parents, you remember that you give orders to serve them and the Lord, not yourselves. Slaves (and in our day, employees), obey your earthly masters, yes—but do it for the Lord, knowing that’s really who you’re serving anyway; and masters, remember that you, too, have a Master in heaven—in fact, the same Master—and treat all those who work for you accordingly.
In other words, what Paul’s talking about here isn’t prerogatives and hierarchies and what we have the right to expect from others; he’s calling us to serve others in the name of Jesus, as an expression of the love of Christ, in humility which seeks to put the good of others first. It’s not a hard thing to understand—it’s very simple, really. It’s just hard to do, because that’s not our normal reflex, it’s not what comes naturally to us. But that’s what it means to follow the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And so Paul says, yes, we’re all called to serve others, no matter our position; and however we’re called to serve, whomever we’re required to obey, we need to do it, and to do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Whatever your work may be, do it as service to the Lord, knowing that your just reward is in his hands.